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U.S. drops fight to get abortion records

From Terry Freiden
CNN Washington Bureau
Justice Department
Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department has abandoned its controversial effort to obtain abortion records, a move government lawyers said was designed to speed a court decision on the constitutionality of a law banning certain late-term abortions.

Justice Department officials said Tuesday the decision to withdraw a subpoena for medical records from New York Presbyterian Hospital signals they won't appeal rulings in other courts that could delay a decision by a federal judge in New York on the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

The Justice Department had argued the records were central to claims by the law's challengers that the procedure is medically necessary.

The government's effort to subpoena hospital records had mixed success in early court skirmishes. The unexpected decision to end pursuit of the records marks a reversal in the Justice Department's strategy.

"We have thought long and hard the past few days about the course that the government should follow," Assistant U.S. Attorney Sheila Gowan told U.S. District Judge Richard Casey on Monday.

Casey agreed with the government that the medical records were relevant to deciding the case, but an appeals court had temporarily blocked the judge's contempt order against the hospital for refusing to produce the records.

Gowan said the government chose to end the drawn-out battle over the records because of indications that the hospital was prepared to take the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.

"There is an important and substantial public interest in having a prompt decision on the constitutionality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003," she said.

New York Presbyterian Hospital spokeswoman Myrna Manners said the hospital is pleased with the Justice Department's move. "We will always do our utmost to protect the privacy of our patients' confidential medical records," Manners said.

The government decision means Casey will lift the contempt order against the hospital.

Casey called the government move an "interesting change in position" and told Gowan he didn't know that he agreed with the decision.

The judge did not immediately schedule closing arguments or indicate how soon he may rule on the constitutionality of the law.

Federal judges in San Francisco, California, and Lincoln, Nebraska, also are weighing the constitutionality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Act. The Justice Department decision in New York does not affect those cases.

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